The Smartest Presidents

A reader emailed me, asking me to delve into presidential intelligence a bit more.  I’ve thought about it, read what some presidential scholars have said, and used a little bit of common sense.  In considering the issue, I’ve looked at the definitions of intelligence offered by, and settled on this one: “manifestation of a high mental capacity.”  So which presidents had the highest manifestations of mental capacity?  Here’s my list:

1.  Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson was a brilliant political philosopher and master wordsmith, capturing in one document what would become the defining ideal of our nation – that all men are created equal.  But what separates Jefferson from other presidents was his accomplishments in a wide range of other areas.  He designed one of the most unique and beautiful homes in the United States.  He invented numerous gadgets, including a primitive copy machine, a system for closing doors, and a swivel chair.  He ran a successful plantation, using many new agricultural techniques.  For his wide range of accomplishments across diverse areas, he has to be considered our most intelligent president.

2.  Abraham Lincoln.  Most presidential scholars disagree with me here, and don’t even place Lincoln in the top five.  Certainly Lincoln did not have Jefferson’s refinement, education, or cross-disciplinary accomplishments.  But Lincoln was a master of language.  In this one area, his accomplishments may even exceed Jefferson’s.  The Gettysburg Address has become almost as much a part of our democratic foundation as the Declaration of Independence, and the Second Inaugural Address is a masterpiece.  Lincoln wrote like a poet (and was a poet), using phrases like “mystic chords of memory” and “the father of waters again goes unvexed to the sea.”   Besides his written command of the English language, he was an accomplished orator.  He was also, as libraries of books attest, a political genius.

3.  James Madison.  Madison wrote large portions of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and authored some of the Federalist Letter.  His authorship of these documents is a testament to his brilliance as a political philosopher and legal thinker, and mastery of the English language.  Madison was also highly educated, spoke numerous languages, and studied a wide variety of subjects.

4.  John Adams.  John Adams, like the three presidents preceding him on this list, was a master of the English language.  He was perhaps the most effective orator among the Founding Fathers – an extraordinary accomplishment.  His speeches helped ensure passage of the Declaration of Independence.

5.  Theodore Roosevelt.  Roosevelt, like Jefferson, had accomplishments across several different areas.  He was a historian, writer, military leader, and naturalist.  Roosevelt also had a photographic memory.  It is likely his photographic memory that enabled to him to write more than ten books on topics from ranching to the history New York City, over the course of his very busy life.


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